Christmas Brawls

Michael Salimitari and Raye Bonham bring the first act of Season's Greetings to a screaming climax--under the tree, no less.

Christmas may come but once a year, but Clive and Belinda hope to do so several times--and under the tree, no less--in Sir Alan Ayckbourn's bitter farce, Season's Greetings. In the sparkly, punch-drunk production on view at Collin County Community College's Quad C Theatre, these two characters--dishy single novelist Clive (Michael Salimitari) and sexy married housewife Belinda (Raye Bonham)--bring the first act to a squealing climax when their spontaneous Christmas Eve coitus is interrupted by a clapping mechanical monkey, a burglar alarm and the sudden appearance of every other guest in the house, including Belinda's husband Neville (Jason Ralph).

It takes a while to get to the really big laughs in this very silly, veddy British two-act comedy, but it's worth the wait. Directed by Rene Moreno, Dallas' most exacting stager of funny plays, the cast, a mix of student and professional actors, never takes a wrong step. They easily click into the madcap pace (and the British accents) and keep the endless exits and entrances crisply timed.

Like any episode of Fawlty Towers, the situation in Season's Greetings starts out conventionally and disintegrates into ridiculous miscommunications, slapstick drunkenness, domestic arguments and antic violence. The play also works in a little wry commentary on Thatcher-era bigotry and social paranoia and the way grown-ups, given a little too much rum in their nog, start acting like out-of-control children around the holidays.


Season's Greetings

Season's Greetings continues through December 11 at Quad C Theatre, 972-881-5100., A Christmas Carol continues through December 24 at Dallas Theater Center, 214-522-8999. and A Very FIT Christmas continues through December 18 at the Bath House

As various friends and family members gather at the large home of Belinda and Neville to celebrate Christmas, nerves begin to fray. Belinda's dour sister Rachel (Vanessa Bellew) has dragged along her friend Clive, a famous writer whom none of her family has met. Upon arrival, Clive openly flirts with busty Belinda as she bustles about, noisily decorating the foyer and wrapping presents. Distracted Neville tinkers with DIY projects out in his shed and ignores everything around him, including Belinda.

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Slouchy Uncle Harvey (Mark Oristano) is the family grump, a gun nut who's bought all the children (whom we never see) weapons as gifts. Neville's tipsy and accident-prone sister Phyllis (Tiffany Kellerman in a show-stopping comic turn) causes havoc in the kitchen and drools all over Clive after sussing out that he's not a "homo-seck-sool." Her husband Bernard (Charles Ryan Roach) tortures them all with rehearsals of his annual puppet epic. Another couple, unemployed Eddie (J-M Specht) and very pregnant Pattie (Julie Painter), hover miserably on the fringes.

Act 1 of Season's Greetings ends with a bang, but unfortunately Act 2 ends with a whimper. Everyone just sort of packs up and leaves. No matter. Two hours of watching someone else's family fight during the holidays is a lovely vacation from reality.

In recent years, Dallas Theater Center's annual production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has come off too often as weird, overdone and unpalatable--like a bad mail-order fruitcake recycled year to year. The 2004 version featured a squad of scary zombies rising from a misty graveyard. There was the year the Ghost of Christmas Past was embodied by a near-naked girl who crawled out of Scrooge's bed like an underage hooker. Another adaptation sported a terrifying 20-foot-high black-hooded marionette looming over the audience as the Ghost of Christmas Future. One year the ladies' costumes were so low-cut, it threatened to become A Tale of Two Titties. And then there was that long-ago opening night when the fog machine malfunctioned, filling the theater with choking smoke. Good times, good times.

A move back to the more intimate Kalita Humphreys Theater on Turtle Creek and out of the deep-frozen warehouse called the Arts District Theater (those hard metal chairs were a chiropractor's best friend) may be just one of the reasons this year's Carol looks and feels as if DTC is doing it for the first time. At last, they're doing it right.

The new adaptation by Richard Hellesen brings out the best in Dickens' classic ghost story about a bitter old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge (Robin Chadwick, back in the role here for the first time since 1998), and his change of heart after a series of apparitions on Christmas Eve. Directed and choreographed by Joel Ferrell, this is the most musical Carol DTC has ever attempted. Composer-lyricist David de Berry, working from traditional period songs, scores the show with haunting tunes and jaunty dances. The large cast showcases some of the area's best singer-actors, including Liz Mikel as Ghost of Christmas Present, Chamblee Ferguson as Bob Cratchit and, in a variety of character roles, Brian Gonzales, Jessica Turner and Joanna Schellenberg.

In the smaller theater, this Christmas Carol feels enormous. Set pieces spin and roll all over the revolving stage, giving every scene a sense of continuous forward motion. Sound effects fill the space with peals of thunder and the clangs of chiming clocks marking the passage of hours in Scrooge's scary dreamscape. The production is visually arresting beginning to end.

Emotionally, it packs a pretty big wallop, too. Chadwick takes his Scrooge from cartoon villain to broken man and then to open-hearted hero, somersaulting into his happier self. Ferguson plays Cratchit with a touch of Dick Van Dyke's lovable bumbling. And at DTC there's never been a better Jacob Marley (Scrooge's long-dead business partner) than Dean Nolen, dragging "the chains I forged in life" across the stage as his booming voice echoes off the rafters.

Forget those old fruitcakes of the past. This Christmas Carol is as warm, sweet and rich as a classic plum pudding.

As seasonal menus go, A Very FIT Christmas, the little variety show over at the Bath House Cultural Center, is a little bit of this, a little bit of that. And like any buffet, some nibbles are tastier than others.

Produced by the Festival of Independent Theatres, FIT Christmas tries for diversity but ends up suffering from a lack of focus. The line-up changes nightly, but each performance includes a few holiday-themed 10-minute plays, some musical solos and sing-alongs with the audience and a dash of traditional storytelling. Two playlets, Three Kings by James Venhaus and Two-Person Conversation by Matt Haldeman, are standard sketch material about holiday unpleasantness. The nonsensical Shopping and Dropping by Laura Henry--about teenagers at Macy's stumbling across what could be a corpse--should be returned for a full refund.

On the night reviewed, there was only one sit-up-and-notice segment: Scott A. Eckert's astonishing one-man musical version of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart. As the opener of the second half of the evening, composer-performer Eckert's strange 15-minute mini-musical is sung in counterpoint to a recorded score of traditional carols. In melodies as atonal and intricate as Sondheim's for Sweeney Todd, Eckert sings and acts out Poe's dark story of jealousy and murder. As Eckert pantomimes stabbing his nemesis in his sleep, the victim's heart beats its last to the thrumming "pah-rum-pah-pum-pums" of "The Little Drummer Boy." Chilling.

Eckert is one of Dallas' most underappreciated theater talents. His modernized versions of Macbeth and Hamlet, staged at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre in a series Eckert calls Shakespeare for the Modern Man, are cleverly streamlined and wickedly witty. He also serves as musical director for musicals all over town. And in his spare time he has come up with this knockout Poe thing. Not exactly imbued with Yuletide cheer, but it is an unexpected spasm of excitement in an otherwise dreary FIT Christmas.

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